By David Yamaguchi, The North American Post
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our appreciation for the grocery stores that keep us fed. While the larger stores fill our stomachs, small specialty stores nourish our souls as well. One of the latter is Maruta Shoten, or Maruta, a small Japanese grocery in Georgetown in south Seattle.
Like tides, there are two times in the day when the parking lot at Maruta is packed. The first is at lunchtime, when working people nearby think, “I feel like a Maruta bento,” and drop in to pick one up. Maruta is known for its delicious, reasonably priced take-out lunchboxes.
The second—more amusing—time, is in the late afternoon, perhaps at 4:15 PM. Then, one enters the mom-and-pop to see it full of customers, all wandering about, browsing the shelves, but not really buying anything.
That “miteru dake” [only looking] mood changes abruptly when an employee sets a sign in the refrigerated bento case marking all bento “half off.” At that point, there is a mad dash to the bento shelves. By 4:45, they are bare.
The bento markdown is well known in the south Seattle Japanese community. The bento is discounted because raw and broiled fish, deep-fried tempura, and cooked rice are best eaten fresh. And so, like cows in the pasture or finicky salmon waiting on the tide, we know when it’s time to show up for dinner.
I first learned of the half-off bento from a Tukwila “foodie” friend in 2015. However, it was not until last summer that I began learning the areal extent of this word-of-mouth intelligence. A Japanese co-worker, who lives in Auburn, told me of it. A Japanese tour guide, who lives in Shoreline, also shared it.
Each of the three who relayed the “Tale of the Half-Off Maruta Bento” with me did so with a big grin on his face. For it is the human condition—ningen no joutai—to enjoy a great deal on a meal. Accordingly, it seems probable that a century from now, the story will be told in the same, funny way.
“Mukashi mukashi, Georgetown-mura no Maruta shoten ni…” Long ago, in the village of Georgetown, at Maruta grocery…”